Noble Cause Corruption: When Police Lie To Get Their Guy
Mar. 15, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — A Tennessee sex trafficking case went awry. No slick defense lawyering or loopholes in this one. The case was fake from the start. The facts didn’t support the charges, the witnesses were lying, and the jury, judge, and appellate court saw right through it. That was about the how. This is about the why.
Heather Weyker is the St. Paul, Minnesota cop at the center of the case. There is little question the case was doomed from the start. It involved travel from Minnesota to Tennessee, which is why a bunch of people from Minnesota got prosecuted so far from home. Minnesota federal prosecutors got the first crack at the case. And they wanted nothing to do with it.
But then-U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones rejected it before federal prosecutors in Tennessee took it.
And in the wake of a federal appeals decision last week excoriating the case and the investigator who pushed it, Jones’ decision appears to have been solid.
“Generally speaking, it wasn’t a caseload issue, it was a quality issue. The quality of the case,” Jones said Friday. “And we decided to punt.”
Jones isn’t some soft-on-crime hippie, either. In addition to several stints as Minnesota’s top federal prosecutor, he directed the ATF and has been tapped as the NFL’s chief disciplinary officer.
So how did Weyker sell such a dog of a case to the Tennessee prosecutors? By lying. And not just a few little white lies, like “he was resisting” or “I never heard him ask for a lawyer.” These were real, in-court lies. The kind of lies that piss off a federal appeals court:
The court also underscored the district court’s findings that the lead investigator, St. Paul police Sgt. Heather Weyker, “likely exaggerated or fabricated important aspects” of an alleged victim’s story, that she lied to a grand jury and later during a detention hearing, and that she lied on an application to a victim compensation fund saying one of the girls had been abducted, when the alleged victim “flatly denied an abduction.”
Why? Why lie? Well, at least one person recognizes Weyker may have had the best of intentions.
“I don’t think it’s evil. It’s what we refer to as ‘noble cause’ corruption,” said Dr. Maki Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who specializes in police integrity and police training. “That defines situations in which police officers are tempted to fabricate facts in order to move their case forward, because if they don’t, then an otherwise guilty person will go free.”
In other words: The end justifies the means.
“We see this in police culture very frequently,” Haberfeld said.
Noble cause corruption. Well that certainly sounds like a strange term. Noble and corruption don’t usually go together. What exactly is it? An oversimplified ethical reasoning that places results ahead of everything else:
As officers sworn to uphold the law, they are duty bound to stop further violence against other victims. The vivid recollection of victims suffering can, at times, compel officers to focus only on the end result of making the world a safer place. Officers generally join law enforcement to protect the vulnerable, to help others, and to enforce the law; their cause is generally a noble one, filled with good intent.
When officers reach a point where they are more concerned with the end result, they may resort to unethical and even unlawful activities to protect victims from further victimization and other citizens from becoming victimized. This rationale is an example of teleological thinking where the means are not as important as the ends.
Weyker has been placed on leave after her role in the case. Nashville defense attorney Jennifer Thompson gave a simpler explanation of noble cause corruption:
Police officers can be really righteous and they really believe they know who are the good people and who are the bad people. And many times police officers get a story in their head about how they want a story to be, and then they get this factual bias … and all the things that don’t fit with their theory, they disregard.
That appears to be what Weyker did. She had an unusually close relationship with the “victims” in this case, which probably justified, in her mind, her lying in court. When one of the “victims’” parents objected, Weyker met with her secretly to talk about the case. Over the course of more than 30 secret meetings, the sex trafficking fairy tale emerged.
Weyker said she did so by “being a constant in their life.” She would give her cellphone number to victims, whom she called “my girls,” and they would sometimes call her in the middle of the night just to talk, Weyker said in 2010.
Caught up with the victims, Weyker developed the ultimate confirmation bias. She wanted these girls to be victims of sex trafficking crimes. So she made up a sex trafficking crime. There are victimless crimes, but not crimeless victims.
Why should anyone care about this? At the end of the day, the guys got off, so what’s the big deal? Weyker did what she thought was right. She just knew the defendants were guilty. But her judgment was so off that multiple jurors and judges disagreed with her. Yet she had absolutely convinced herself she was right about this case.
This is not a unique situation. Think about how often you are certain of something. You convince yourself everything points to you being right. You see all the facts in the light of your conclusion. And then you find out you are wrong. Most of the time it’s harmless. Not in the criminal justice system. Add to that bias the mentality that you are doing something good for the world, protecting the helpless, locking up a predator…and what do you have?
The answer to these types of wrongful convictions: Noble cause corruption. The idea it’s okay to lie for the greater good. Better to break a few silly rules than let some hardened criminal go free.
Where do you need it to hit you? In your pocket? Wrongful convictions are costing a fortune.
How about when somebody spends most of their life in a tiny cell waking up every morning to shitty food and a cellmate who wants to beat them or rape them? Imagine the frustration of having your life stolen. All of the sunshine and music and laughter and love taken away because some cop thought you were guilty and made sure your new home was in a miserable prison.
Where is all of the nobility then? The Tennessee not-sex traffickers got lucky. Many defendants don’t.